Survey shows 78.2 percent of elderly Koreans live independently
By Yoon Ja-young
Senior citizens in Korea are healthier, wealthier, more active and confident than ever. If elderly people were typically depicted as passive and dependent, suffering from poverty, the new generation of senior citizens gives off a different image.
A woman surnamed Roh, who runs a small hardware shop with her husband in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, lived under the same roof as her husband's mother ― prior to the mother-in-law's death a few years ago ― but she doesn't want that lifestyle for herself, her husband and her son's family.
"We are still healthy and we can make ends meet with the money we earn. Why would we live together with my son's family? They wouldn't like it, and I wouldn't like it either. My friends say that's the last thing we should do," said the 68-year-old.
While it was regarded as a norm ― under Korea's unique brand of Confucianism ― for children to live with and take care of their aging parents, many elderly Koreans, or 78.2 percent, now live independently. That is according to a 2020 report on senior citizens released by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs under the Ministry of Health and Welfare. This report is released every three years based on a survey of more than 10,000 people aged 65 or older.
The ratio of independent senior citizens has soared by over 10 percentage points from 2008 when 66.8 percent lived separately from their children. The survey shows that only 12.8 percent of senior citizens want to live with their children, compared with 2008 when 32.5 percent supported the idea.
Even if they choose to live together with their children, in many cases, they do that to help take care of their grandchildren and not for their own benefit. Furthermore, one out of three senior citizens living with their unmarried offspring said they do so because of their adult children's needs ― such as financial support ― rather than their own.
That's the case of a 72-year-old woman surnamed Choi, who lives in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, with her eldest son who is a bachelor. She receives 300,000 won ($268) a month from him in room and board but she just saves the money and plans to give it back to him if he ever gets married.
To stand on one's own, one must be financially independent. The new old generation fares well in this regard, compared with previous ones. The report shows that they have an average of 15.58 million won in annual income, which is more than double the 7 million won income people in that age group had in 2008. Most of their income is earned by themselves or comes from pensions. Only 13.9 percent of their total income comes from their children, which is a steep drop from 22 percent three years ago.
Rather than their children giving them cash handouts, the elderly are often the ones on the giving end. A man surnamed Kim, who has retired from a mid-tier construction company, says he gives his granddaughter 200,000 won for every 100,000 won his daughter gives him. Some wealthier senior citizens even regularly financially support their grandchildren's education.
Most senior citizens in Korea, or 96.6 percent, have some real estate, on average valued at 261.8 million won. Four out of five also outright own the house they live in. It compares with the 2019 housing report by the Land Ministry, according to which four out of 10 households here were not owners of their dwellings.
Higher education behind the change
The change is expected to accelerate as so-called "Korean baby boomers" ― those born in the post-Korean War and recession eras ― started joining the ranks of senior citizens. Those born in 1953, 1954, and 1955 were newly included in the 2020 survey, accounting for 21.3 percent of total senior citizens.
"Compared with their predecessors, baby boomers have higher disposable income, spend more, and also have bigger assets," said Ahn Seo-yeon, deputy research fellow at the National Pension Research Institute and she believes this is due to higher levels of education.
"They owe it to higher levels of education. It had a positive impact in that they can maintain higher levels of economic resources and consumption."
Among baby boomers, 43.1 percent have a high school diploma while 29.8 percent have a college education or higher. Among their predecessors, however, 31.4 percent went to high school and only 16.3 percent received college degrees or higher.
"The baby boomers will stay in the labor market based on the higher education they received, and if they have secured a pension on top of that, the poverty ratio among senior citizens will decrease," she noted.
Most of the senior citizens who still work regularly say they do it for their livelihood as their pension is still not enough to provide security. However, if their predecessors worked purely for survival, baby boomers have more diverse reasons for still working such as to maintain health, for social networking, or to make use of their capabilities. They say work makes them feel active and helps provide self-esteem as they have a role to contribute to society.
The new old generation has broader social relations. They contact friends or neighbors more often than their children. Lee, who lives in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, has phone call with her sons in Seoul about two or three times a month, but she talks with her college friends much more often. They even have a Zoom meeting every Sunday.
They don't regard themselves as old, with 74 percent of senior citizens in the survey saying that they consider 70 as the starting age of senior citizenship. They are healthier, with 50.5 percent reporting they are satisfied with their health. That is a leap from 34 percent in 2011.
They also know how to enjoy life, with 37.7 percent saying hobbies and leisure activities are the most important things in their lives. Eight out of 10 senior citizens are actually engaged in cultural and leisure activities, which include sports, social activities, and hobbies. As of 2020, 21.9 percent of elderly Koreans drive compared to one out of 10 in 2008.
"We have been portraying senior citizens as passive and dependent, but the survey shows that they are very independent in terms of finance, health and relationships. They are also more satisfied with their life," said Yang Seong-il, vice health and welfare minister.
He said that the government plans to focus on developing policies that can satisfy the diverse needs of the "new generation" of senior citizens.